Meat consumption — and large-scale animal agriculture to meet the global demand for meat — is a major contributor to greenhouse gases
In 2014, when the documentary Cowspiracy was released, sceptics dismissed it as yet another conspiracy theory targeting the animal agriculture industry. The documentary — for the first time — pointed out that global efforts to tackle climate change were focussed on reducing fossil fuels, but were completely ignoring the impact of methane, which is produced by animal agriculture.
While CO2 released into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels is the biggest driver of global warming, methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) are second and third in impact. The report further states that the increase in atmospheric methane since 1750 far exceeds the range over “multiple glacial-interglacial transitions of the past 800,000 years”! In fact, CH4 levels had plateaued in the 1990s, but have rapidly risen since 2007, largely driven by emissions from fossil fuel exploitation, livestock agriculture, and waste.
What is methane? Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat 28 times more effectively than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timescale, according to NASA’s Global Climate Change resource centre. The IPCC report identifies a major source of atmospheric methane as livestock farming, with the amounts of methane produced varying according to the “type of cattle, amount and quantity of feeds, energy consumption, the size of the animal, its health and growth rate, meat and milk production rate, and temperature”. Methane is also produced by the decomposition of manure — which is then used as fertilisers.
The findings are in line with the 58 per cent increase in global meat consumption between 1998 and 2018. Even if we don’t approach this from an animal rights perspective, we can’t ignore the impact that animal agriculture has had on the planet. Apart from direct emissions from large rumens, dismissed by sceptics as cow farts, growing feed for livestock has led to massive deforestation to “free up” land for grazing, loss of biodiversity, and environmental pollution. This large-scale deforestation in effect means that there are not enough trees to absorb the carbon dioxide that we emit.
This brings us to the argument we started with. Meat consumption — and large-scale animal agriculture to meet the global demand for meat — is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. This assertion by animal rights activists — now supported by figures from the IPCC — is far from being a conspiracy theory.
The health impacts of predominantly meat-based diets are also being seen in the rise in “lifestyle diseases” such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, or in zoonotic diseases transmitted from animals to human beings.
Lena Höglund-Isaksson, whose 2020 study has been quoted in the IPCC report, has argued that technical solutions alone will not be enough to halt the increase in greenhouse gases. She makes a strong case for institutional and behavioural changes for “transitioning towards very low CH4 emissions from livestock production.”
A massive movement encouraging a switch to plant-based diets lies at the heart of such behaviour change. People need to be made aware of the impact of the food we eat — not just on the planet and on animals, but on human health as well. When we switch to a plant-based diet, we not only reduce the incidence of “lifestyle” diseases, and guard against future zoonotic outbreaks, but also bring down the global demand for meat.
When the demand for plant-based food goes up, institutions will start to make space for Meatless Mondays or Vegan Wednesdays in college and company canteens. But while individual change is important, it’s not enough. There needs to be increased pressure on policymakers to ensure that alternative livelihoods are created for people who currently farm animals. Investments need to be made in companies that develop alternative plant proteins and plant-based foods. There needs to be pressure built on large industrial producers of meat to stop deforestation.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has described the IPCC report as “a code red for humanity.” We can either get overwhelmed by the enormous scale of the problem, or we can make a start towards fixing it — by swapping that knife for a fork!
The writer is the Director – Outreach of the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO)